“Please. Please don’t make me redundant.”
Have you been there? Have you been, as so many have, more than once now, on the verge of corporate redundancy? Not given the choice-laid off, let go, downsized? Packaged out? “Re-orged”? Or have you quit? Walked? Pretended you were going back to school? All because you were being pushed out, diminished, seeing your shine dim, hour by hour, week by week, as the grey hairs seemed to go overnight from stray to an advancing army?
David Brent, the main “faux-reality” star of Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s The Office, is not a man that endears you to him. Nor, maybe, would you or I be if the cameras followed us around the office, our sad middle-management (or less) domains; where we struggle to entertain ourselves and those we hope are our allies, fight to be relevant, stave off the redundancy that is part of the biggest fears of the human condition.
David Brent, on a first watch back in 2001, for the younger viewer, is a perfect cartoon: a dancing buffoon, a slightly creepy boss with a bad manager’s neediness and whimsical, unpredictable shifts in personality. He can be observed with the detachment that comes with the privilege of being not him. For the young watcher isn’t soft in the middle, pathetically out of touch, is the claim. For at 25, you might just be the likable, smartest man in the room, like Tim (Martin Freeman), the audience’s avatar, who tells himself he only has one foot in this go-nowhere office life and that it’s temporary. You might (also) be the meant-for-more-artistic-things sweet, suffering receptionist Dawn whose comfort is her inactive sense of over-qualification, and her just barely-dangerous office flirtation with Tim. We then, like Tim and Dawn, with all the world before us, can all laugh at David Brent. We can easily turn from him when he gets mean, or petty, or cold, or desperate. We can do that because we are young and this faceless office job is not real, merely a future series of anecdotes while we are figuring out our real mission in life.
Watch the run of the show (two short BBC series and the two-part Christmas Specials) (airing on Netflix U.S / U.K.) again and decide where you laugh, where you are saddened and where you identify. For Gervais and Merchant have created something that is arguably one of the best commentaries on the common man striving in a hierarchical world of ‘haves and have nots’ their chances, and ultimate failures in a rigged game, since Dickens.
Merchant and Gervais did all this through a sort of sleight of hand that is the unique gift of unknown writers, both so sensitive and full of ideas and feeling, hiding behind that razor wit and that eye for modern archetypes. Merchant stayed behind the camera through which he invented a whole new form of TV storytelling that’s since changed the entire U.S. television landscape (using the shots of a photocopier tray beautifully as an emblem of the mind numbing monotony of office life) as Gervais took his place center stage and gave it all as bravely (and hungrily) as Charlie Chaplin, as Paul Newman, as Robin Williams, as latter day Bill Murray, in the glorious time when Bill Murray’s 80’s smarm softened into late in life accessibility and true humanity, after all.
David Brent at first glance (or even many rewatches over the years) is all the things we like our cartoon bosses to be. His flaws as a manager, while heightened for comedic effect, are authentic to anyone who’s ever had someone like him responsible for their performance review and their livelihood. But revisiting Brent over the passage of time brings out new colours and tones, revealing this production to be a masterwork that goes beyond even its proven legacy that The Office’s cringe-comedic social commentary is second to none. (The sharp and under-appreciated Veep with the brilliant Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the U.S. Vice President who’s alternately the penultimate assholic, rich, entitled boss, then turns on a heel in moments as the sympathetic beleaguered leader surrounded by chimps, is the only heir apparent to Gervais’ & Merchant’s model in the intervening 14 years of television).
The stunning, evolving, longevity of the The Office in the face of its more obvious, more processed American cousins, is that its flavour changes through time, like all true art that resonates not for a season, but for a lifetime. As David Brent fails; when he dances without music, tone-deaf to the reaction of the room; when he wastes the chance to accept success because of fear and misplaced loyalty; Brent ceases to be a cartoon. He is the flash of cold sweat of our most humiliating memories, the ones that visit on sleepless nights. He is casual, everyday, horror. He is what happens when your will, your skills, your charms, and the cocktail of neuroses you keep tucked away, utterly fail you in the jungle of life or in the competitive, heartless, corporate construct we are meant to accept as progress. In a single moment, his fidgeting with his tie goes from comedy homage to a flirtation with the noose. And worse: knowing no other way to live, Brent begs for more of this.
He’s just a middle manager. Easily replaced, mistakenly attached to the bricks and to the mortar. He doesn’t, in fact, come with the building. Even as the cameras follow him he’s a sad, misinformed, side note to the story of the younger, more attractive, more Teflon people around him who the camera loves more. David Brent, a decade and a half on, is as deeply, eternally funny as you remember, in that perfectly cringe-worthy way that made the critics, the fans and the world take notice. He’s also horribly, starkly, sad and the furthest thing from a cartoon. He’s familiar.
To watch this again, 14 years later, is to find a poignant touchstone, even a rallying cry for a long overdue personal revolution. This team did just that for themselves with this show, they put a stamp on the world and changed it. For the viewer (and reviewer) maybe with too many careers to be acceptable on one resume, maybe after divorce or all the inevitable losses in life, fully understands in that laugh-track free void, the cruelest of all the chilly, efficient, British terms in the language: redundant. Here, in the greatest modern TV comedy made for us, lies beautifully rendered pathos: the urgent, whispering, grasping need to matter – in a career or even, in a calling; in love; in the family; in the fucking digital world we now reside in; in the meeting; in the crowd; alone.
(The specific quote referenced is from The Office BBC, series 2, episode 6 “Charity/Interview”)
Why Merchant & Gervais’ The Office Still Reigns Supreme – Part One in our series about The Office (BBC).